Providence: God, conceived of as guiding men as a race and as individuals to ends he has in view for them or as preserving individuals from danger through his prescience, loving care, or intervention.
Once upon a time the United States had a president named George W. who was sometimes suspected of stupidity. It was alleged that George W. dozed during cabinet meetings, rarely read reports and didn't write his own speeches. According to administration insiders, George W. "was, in general, an illiterate, intellectually incompetent cipher who was propped up in public by his staff." (See Joseph J. Ellis's account, The Passionate Sage, p. 69.)
The president so described was George Washington and not George W. Bush. It is one of those odd coincidences of history that two presidents, with similar initials, should be similarly criticized. Whatever President Washington's intellectual merits, he had something else to recommend him. A chieftain who fought against him during the French and Indian War, expressed the view that Washington was protected by the Great Spirit. The chieftain had singled Washington out in battle, ordering several braves to shoot him down. But the bullets were mysteriously deflected. We are told that Washington came through more than one battle with bullet holes in his coat. Whatever the truth of these stories, Washington believed in the protecting hand of Providence and he stated this belief in his First Inaugural Address, in which he said "it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect...." Washington further stated: "No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency." Speaking of gratitude, Washington then added, "These reflections ... have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed."
Is some supernatural agency in charge of history?
There is a relevant story making the rounds today, documented by author Stephen Mansfield in a book titled The Faith of George W. Bush. According to Mansfield, the 43rd President, long before he became president, knew in advance that he would be president at a terrible moment in American history. This was told to persons in advance, and Mansfield interviewed those persons. Long before thousands died in the terrorist strikes of 9/11, George W. Bush knew that something horrible was coming and that he would be president. He confided that he didn't want to be president. He knew it would take a toll his family. But he had no choice. It was providential. It was destined.
The skeptics will laugh at this story. But presidential visions are not unknown to history. In fact, they are well documented.
President Abraham Lincoln had several visionary experiences. After learning that he'd been elected president, Lincoln twice saw a deathly image of himself in a mirror. It was an hallucination and a premonition that the presidency would spell his doom. According to historian Stephen B. Oates, Lincoln also had a brush with synchronicity shortly before his death. After waking from a dream, Lincoln opened his Bible "and everywhere he turned his eye fell on passages about dreams, visions, and supernatural visitations." Days later, turning to his wife and friends at the White House, Lincoln related the dream. During the first week of April 1865, as the Civil War was drawing to an end, the president was pacing the deck of the River Queen while waiting for good news from General Grant.
"I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front," Lincoln explained. "I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as though their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers. 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin!' Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it since."
Oates tells us that Lincoln's wife was upset by the president's experience. "Well," Lincoln said in an attempt to comfort her, "it is only a dream, Mary. Let us say no more about it, and try to forget it."
"Modern" thinkers, priding themselves in being free from superstition, will scoff at stories of this kind. They will deny that meaningful coincidences, precognitive dreams and Providence are real. But Providence itself has defied the skeptics by playing a joke of questionable taste upon their sad, materialist assumptions. Consider if you will the most astonishing synchronicity in American history. Abraham Lincoln was the not the only president to be assassinated by a shot to the head. One other president was also assassinated in this way. Now let us consider the following meaningful and inexplicable coincidences.
Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846. John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946. Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860. John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960. Both were shot on a Friday, both were shot in the head from behind and both were assassinated by Southerners. Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy and Kennedy's secretary was named Lincoln. Both had wives who lost children while living in the White House. Both had successors who were Southerners named Johnson. (Both had a vice president named Johnson.) The assassins in each case were known by three names comprised of fifteen letters. John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939. Booth ran from the theater where he shot the president and was caught in a warehouse. Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theater. Booth and Oswald were both killed before they could stand trial.
Those who would laugh at President George W. Bush's premonitions, as documented by Stephen Mansfield, ought to reflect on Lincoln's experiences and the strange relationship evident between two assassinated presidents nearly a century apart. How is this to be explained except that the world is supernaturally ordered?
There is an old idea that has been set aside today. It is the idea that all things are foreordained, that there is a divine plan. Perhaps we have been wrong to set this idea aside and forget the wisdom of our ancestors.
In closing, I will outrage the skeptics further by mentioning a dream I experienced 23 years ago. In the dream I saw the future presidents of the United States. Their portraits were lined side by side from left to right. The first in order was Ronald Reagan who had just been elected. The second was George H. W. Bush. The next two faces I did not recognize. An old man was present in the dream and I turned to him. "Where are the others?" I asked, wanting to see the rest of the future presidents. "There are no others," he replied. "After these the Republic ends."
I don't know whether my dream was inspired by a higher power, or whether it occurred after eating a bad pizza. The latter interpretation is preferable. But coincidentally, while putting together this column, I stumbled upon the following quote from Arthur Livingston's introduction to Gaetano Mosca's masterpiece, The Ruling Class. According to Livingston, "The people's of the Western world have for some generations now been familiar with systems where armies and navies are rigidly subject to civil authorities, and they are wont to regard the military rebellion as something exceptional and monstrous. Actually the human beings who have lived on this earth in security from the brutal rule of the soldier are so few in number, on the background of the whole of human history, as hardly to count."
President's Day has just passed, but perhaps it is not too late to reflect on our good fortune. Appreciate what you have while you have it.